When you, your family member, or your friend is sexually assaulted, life can become very chaotic, overwhelming, and scary. Having experienced this, we provide information and resources here to help other survivors and their loved ones navigate through the aftermath of sexual assault, becoming whole.
I was sexually assaulted. What do I do?
We are so sorry. Please know that what happened to you is not okay, it is not your fault, and you are not alone.
To guide you through this, we have put together 5 steps below. Each of these steps are completely optional:
Step 1: Get to safety
Call 911 or campus police if you are in immediate danger or seriously injured!
If you are not, but feel unsafe, go to a safe place and contact someone you trust to be with you at this time, such as a friend or family member. This person can support you through whatever steps you decide to take next. (1)
If you want, you can reach out to a campus resource for help. However, if you would prefer confidentiality, be careful. Generally, those who provide mental health services to students do not have to report any information about a sexual assault; and, those who regularly assist survivors, such as employees or volunteers in the health, women's, or sexual assault center only have to report non-identifying information. However, this is not the case at every school; and, if a survivor is under the age of 18, certain people may be required by law to report identifying information about their sexual assault to police. (2)
For more information about your state's mandatory reporting laws, please visit RAINN. You can also find out which resources are confidential on your campus by referring to your school's website or handbook; and, you can contact a free, confidential, and 24/7 hotline on our CRISIS HOTLINES page.
While we encourage you to report your sexual assault to your college or university, as well as to law enforcement, please understand that choosing to report is a personal decision. It is understandable and okay if you do not want to report it or are unsure of whether or not you do right now.
But, just in case you decide to report it to law enforcement, or know that you want to now, write down everything you can remember about your sexual assault, and keep it in a journal that you can add more memories to as they come. Also, do not shower, bathe, use the restroom, brush your teeth, comb your hair, change your clothes, or clean up the area where this happened. The police may want to collect evidence from the crime scene, and you may want to have a sexual assault forensic exam, which we will discuss in the next step. By not doing these things now, you will increase the chances of important evidence being collected for your case. (3)
However, if you need to move anything or change your clothes, make sure you store these items in a paper bag. Doing this will protect any evidence they may contain from damage. (3)
Step 2: Recieve Medical attention
Even if you were not seriously injured, it is still important to receive medical attention after a sexual assault. (4)
Below are the medical services you may need: (4)
Emergency contraceptives to prevent pregnancy
Testing for STIs
Treatment for injuries, including ones you may not be able to see
Sexual assault forensic exam, or rape kit
It is best to complete a sexual assault forensic exam within 72 hours of the incident. However, some places allow survivors to complete rape kits up to 120 hours after their attack; and, regardless of whether or not you are past the time frame to complete a rape kit, you should always feel free to receive any other medical services you need. (3)
At your college or university, a campus resource may be able to provide some or all of these medical services. However, if you would prefer confidentiality, remember what we discussed in Step 1.
To find out if a campus resource provides the medical services above, refer to your school's website or handbook. However, if you would prefer to go off-campus or need medical services that are not available on-campus, go to a local hospital or healthcare provider instead. You can find one by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. They will connect you with a sexual assault service provider in your area, and that provider may be able to send a trained advocate to accompany you, too. (3)
Also, if you decide to have a sexual assault forensic exam, bring a change of clothes with you; or, if you stored your clothes or other items in a paper bag, bring the paper bag with you to the exam. During this exam, a health professional will conduct a full examination of your body, collecting any evidence they can find of your perpetrator. In doing so, they may need to collect your clothes or "paper bag" items as well. (3)
To learn more about the sexual assault forensic exam, please visit RAINN.
And remember, if no evidence is found, or you decide to not have the exam, you can still report the crime to law enforcement. The decision is up to you, and there is no right or wrong choice.
Step 3: Tell your school
Reporting your sexual assault to your college or university is separate from reporting it to law enforcement. While we encourage you to do both, you also have the options of only reporting it to your school or not reporting it at all.
Below are 2 types of reporting: (2)
Informal reporting: Non-identifying information about your sexual assault is provided to your college or university, which will become part of aggregate data to inform everyone of the violence on and around campus.
Formal reporting: Identifying information about your sexual assault is provided to your college or university, which may be forwarded to the appropriate individual(s) for investigation and disciplinary action.
Informal reporting is not available at every school; and, each school has its own reporting process. For more information about the reporting options and process at your college or university, refer to their website or handbook. (2)
Also, you can reach out to a campus resource for assistance; but, if you are concerned about confidentiality, remember what we discussed in Step 1.
If you already informed a campus resource of your sexual assault, they may have had to report it to your college or university in one of the ways above. This is because of two federal laws, Title IX and the Clery Act, which require schools to address sexual assault and its related issues. (2)
According to these laws, you have rights as a student survivor. For instance, as your college or university investigates your sexual assault, they must provide any reasonable accommodations, assistance, or protection you need because of what happened, as long as what you need does not "unreasonably" burden your perpetrator. Also, if you do not want an investigation or disciplinary action to take place, you can make that request. In most cases, your school should be able to honor it. (5)
For more information about Title IX and the Clery Act, refer to Know Your IX.
On the other hand, if you feel more comfortable not reporting, do not; or, if you are unsure of whether or not you do, take your time in making this decision. Do whatever is best for you.
Step 4: Tell law enforcement
Although we encourage you to report the crime to law enforcement, you may not be sure if that's what you want to do yet. That is okay. You have time to decide whether or not you want to report your sexual assault. Just make sure you decide before your state's time limit, or statute of limitations, ends. (6)
To find out what your state's statute of limitations is, as well as how they legally define sexual assault, please visit RAINN. Also, if your state's legal definition of sexual assault does not include what happened to you, please understand: that does not mean that you were not sexually assaulted.
If you have evidence from Step 1 that is not preserved in a rape kit, it is best for police to obtain it within 72 hours of the incident; or, if you completed a rape kit, it is best to report the crime before it is discarded. (3)
If you reported your sexual assault to your college or university, or want to now, campus police can assist you in reporting the crime. Otherwise, you can call or visit the local police station to file a report; or, if you are completing Step 2, you can ask a health professional to call instead. (6)
When communicating with law enforcement, be prepared for a lot of questions. These questions may be repetitive, uncomfortable, and difficult to answer; and, the reporting process can take several hours, with additional interviews lasting just as long, if they are necessary. However, do not be afraid. In recent years, officers have learned about the trauma sexual assault can cause, such as trouble speaking, remembering things, and maintaining consistency. Because of this, some of them try to help survivors by taking their time and asking questions in different ways; so, just believe in your story, tell it as best as you can, and give as much information as possible. A minor detail can go a long way. (7)
Also, if you want to learn the reproductive and sexual anatomy terms that may be used during this process, visit Planned Parenthood. Although these terms are graphic, knowing them may help you describe your experience.
But, if you are mistreated by an officer, please know that you can ask to speak with their supervisor or the next highest-ranking officer instead. You can also ask to speak with them in a more private location, ask for a break, or have a support person with you at all times, even if an officer wants to speak with you alone. (7)
To learn more about reporting the crime, please visit RAINN.
And remember, if you decide not to report your sexual assault to law enforcement, that's okay, too.
Step 5: Start therapy
Your mental health is just as important as your physical health; and, after a sexual assault, you may experience mental or emotional side effects, in addition to physical ones, which need attention.
Below are the mental health services you may need: (8)
Group counseling or support groups
Psychological screening or psychiatric evaluation
At your college or university, a campus resource may be able to provide you with some or all of the mental health services above, confidentially. However, if you experience difficulty in accessing these services, or they do not offer the ones you need, you can get help off-campus.
To assist you in finding a local resource, your school should provide off-campus referrals. However, you can also call or message one of these crisis hotlines, visit RAINN to find a local counseling center for sexual assault survivors, or go to SAMHSA to find mental health services in your state. (8)
If you are concerned about how much these services will cost, there are options available that are either free or low cost. (9) Also, you may be able to receive reimbursement for these services, as well as the medical services from Step 2, through a victim's compensation program. (10) For more information about this program, please visit Benefits.gov.
Additionally, you can learn more about therapy at RAINN.
As a fellow survivor, I encourage you to not be silent about your sexual assault. Whether you talk to a mental health professional or trained advocate, publicly share your story, or choose to confide in a trusted friend or family member, reaching out for support is the strongest and bravest thing you can do; and, although not everyone will understand, people will be there for you.
Also, do not get discouraged. Although bad things often happen, good things happen, too; and, based on personal experience, we can tell you that things will get better, even if they get worse first.
Never give up.
What is my school's conduct process?
Each school has its own conduct process. To find out what that process is, please refer to their website or handbook.
Although you have rights throughout your school's conduct process (as we discussed in Step 3), 2020's changes to Title IX have granted your school and perpetrator harmful rights. Those rights include "lengthy investigations", "unfettered access to evidence, even if irrelevant, harassing, or shaming," and a mandatory live hearing where, "if a party or witness does not submit to cross-examination at the live hearing, the decision-maker(s) must not rely on any statement of that party or witness in reaching a determination regarding responsibility" unless they are in a K-12 setting. (5)
We understand that these guidelines may be upsetting and confusing to you. To learn more about them and others, please visit the links below from Know Your IX:
Your school's conduct process may feel like a trial to you, so please use the information in What Is the Legal Process? to help you through it.
If your college or university violates your rights before, during, or after the conduct process, you can file a civil complaint or lawsuit against them. More information about these options can also be found at Know Your IX and in What is the Legal Process?
What is the Legal Process?
After law enforcement makes an arrest, the case is forwarded to a prosecutor. That prosecutor may seem like your attorney, but they are not. Instead, they represent your state.
If you want to receive unbiased legal advice throughout this process, there are several lawyers and organizations who provide free legal services to survivors of sexual assault. To find out what legal resources are available in your state, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). Know Your IX also provides information about finding an attorney as a sexual assault survivor.
On the other hand, if a prosecutor wants to speak with you about the case, just remember what you did with law enforcement: believe in your story, tell it as best as you can, and give as much information as possible. Once the prosecutor evaluates the case, they will decide whether or not they want to pursue it in criminal court. If they do, but you do not want them to, they generally will not. Otherwise, they will charge your perpetrator with what they see fit and start going through the rest of the criminal justice process. (11)
Below are links to each step of the criminal justice process, provided by the United States Department of Justice:
Most sexual assault cases end in plea bargaining, where there is no trial and you do not have to testify. However, if you do have to testify in court, do not be afraid. Just like you did with law enforcement, believe in your story and tell it as best as you can. Your perpetrator and their supporters will be in the courtroom, and their attorney will do everything they can to win the case; but, although difficult, do not focus on them. Focus on the questions being asked, ask for a break if you need one, cry if you need to, and bring a cup or bottle of water with you to stay hydrated. You can do this. (11)
For more information about testifying, please visit The United States Department of Justice.
Additionally, just like you have rights as a campus survivor, you have rights as a crime survivor. For example, there is a rape shield law that limits what your perpetrator's attorney can ask you about your sexual history; and, your prosecutor can file pre-trial motions to try to protect your privacy. Also, your state has its own laws for protecting crime survivors, which may include the right to special accommodations or a support person throughout this process. (11)
To learn more about your rights, call/text The VictimConnect Resource Center at 1-855-484-2846 or click here to chat with one of their specialists. You can also visit VINELink to stay up-to-date on the status of your case.
On the other hand, if the prosecutor decides not to pursue your case, your case does not end the way you want it to, or your rights are violated, you can file a civil lawsuit. A civil lawsuit allows you to pursue monetary compensation through civil court, which is another way of obtaining justice. (11)
To learn more about the civil justice process, click here.
But, remember: if you choose not to go through with the criminal or civil justice process, that's okay, too.
What is a safety plan?
A safety plan is a "personalized, practical plan to improve your safety while experiencing abuse, preparing to leave an abusive situation, or after you leave." After a sexual assault, you may be afraid of something happening again, especially if you are or were in an abusive relationship with your perpetrator, or they have been stalking you. (12)
To help yourself feel and be safer, consider where your perpetrator goes, when they get there, and which routes they take. Then, determine which areas and routes are safest for you on-campus and in the local area, and plan what to do if you ever run into your perpetrator or need help.
Because technology can be used for harm, think of ways to practice phone and online safety. For example, you may decide to not answer blocked or unknown calls, in case they are from your perpetrator; or, you may set certain boundaries for yourself on social media, like not sharing your location or making your accounts as private as possible.
For more information about digital safety, please visit RAINN.
After a sexual assault, it is normal to feel sad, angry, or scared. For times when you feel overwhelmed, or your perpetrator says or does something hurtful, plan what to do to help yourself feel better, such as thinking positive thoughts or participating in a club or organization you like.
To learn more about emotional safety, please visit RAINN.
Most importantly, for situations where you are physically, digitally, or emotionally unsafe, build a support system. Members of this system, who could be trustworthy friends, family members, or campus and local resources, would protect you from danger, listen if you ever want to talk, and help you feel better.
For more information about support systems, please visit Loveisrespect.
Additionally, you may want to get a civil protective order or temporary restraining order against your perpetrator. (14) If you reported your sexual assault to your college or university, they may issue and enforce a "no contact directive or restraining order." (2) However, you can also get a court-issued one, if you want to. This will make it illegal for your perpetrator to contact you in certain ways. (14)
To learn more about these court-issued orders, please visit WomensLaw.org.
Also, if you are in an abusive relationship with your perpetrator, go to the National Domestic Violence Hotline; or, if you are being stalked by them, visit the Stalking Resource Center. These 2 organizations provide information about other safety precautions you should take.
How can I help a survivor?
After experiencing a sexual assault, it is critical for survivors to have support.
Below are some ways you can help: (15)
Believe them, completely and unconditionally.
Know that this is not their fault, no matter how it happened.
Avoid "why" questions or comments that suggest blame, such as "Why did you go to his apartment?" or "You should've fought back!"
Do not assume that they will feel or act a certain way. There are several different ways a person can react to sexual assault; and, it is important to respect whichever way they do.
Support whatever choices they make, and do not pressure them to report the crime or pursue legal action.
To help them make decisions, impartially inform them of or discuss the different options and resources available, so they can choose what is best for themselves.
Let them know that you are available if they ever need anything or want to talk, and be prepared to follow through.
If they do not want to talk about what happened, or would like to be alone, respect their privacy.
If they do talk to you, listen without interrupting, judging, pushing them away, or pressuring them to share more than they are comfortable sharing.
Reassure them that their experience is valid, their feelings matter, what happened to them was not their fault, and they are not alone.
If you ever think they may be suicidal or have another serious problem, learn the warning signs and express your concern with care. More information about suicide can be found at The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline; and, you can learn more about substance abuse at National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Be patient as they go through their healing process, avoiding questions or comments like, "When are you going to move on?" or "You should be over it by now!" Every survivor heals at their own pace; and, even after they heal, they may suffer from triggers for the rest of their lives.
Also, just like survivors need support, you may need support, too. If you ever need help or want to talk, contact one of the CRISIS HOTLINES or start therapy through one of the resources listed in Step 5. These resources are here to help you as well, and they would be more than happy to help you as you help a survivor. (15)
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